What Went Right in Putney?
What can be learned from Labour’s only gain in 2019?
It was around 3am on the 13th December 2019.
Fleur Anderson, the newly elected MP for Putney, took to the stage.
As the cheers from the Labour members in the room died down, she began:
“This is a bright light, in a dark night…”
Even that might have been an understatement. Putney was the only constituency that Labour gained in the whole election. It also happens to be my constituency; I was making a film about the Labour campaign, not realising how significant the result would turn out to be.
At this point I must confess, for fear of it becoming very obvious as I go on, that I am Labour supporter. That night, we were filming at the Putney election count, awaiting the exit poll. I desperately wanted my fellow brits to tell Boris to jog on. At 10pm the exit poll came in and instead, it seemed, they had decided to reward the overgrown public schoolboy. I felt dejected, and the thought of having to wait until the early hours for Putney’s results surrounded by grinning Tories made me feel sick. So, I decided to strike up a conversation with a Labour member in his sixties who I’d encountered a few times during the campaign, who we’ll call ‘Jim’.
I offer some advice to the reader: never rely on a member of the Labour Party to cheer you up. Jim told me in no uncertain terms that there would never be a ‘proper’ Labour government again because England has been made irrevocably right-wing. I wouldn’t usually be so pessimistic, but one thing worried me: Jim had correctly predicted that Putney would go Labour when that seemed like an outside chance.
Almost a year after the election, I still tell myself that Jim was only right on one of his very specific predictions. To try and convince myself, I’ve been looking back at Putney in the hope of seeing how Labour gained a seat that’s been Tory for 19 years in the midst of being wiped out nationally, and if this unexpected result might give some clue as to how Labour might win back power.
Putney is located in the borough of Wandsworth, which voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union. On top of that, Putney was not a typical Conservative seat. The sitting MP Justine Greening, who was popular and well-regarded locally, was one of the 21 MPs unceremoniously booted out of the party for daring to vote against Boris Johnson.
Looking at it from this angle, one might jump to the conclusion that the Conservatives lost themselves the seat, rather than Labour doing anything spectacular to win it. While I’m sympathetic to this view, and there was no shortage of objections locally about Boris Johnson, I think there’s more to it.
Labour’s choice of candidate was, to put it frankly, much better than the Conservatives. They chose a female remainer. I don’t wish to patronise my fellow Putney voters, but it’s a lot easier to make the jump from Conservative to Labour if the specific Conservative candidate you used to vote for is no longer available, and the new Labour candidate looks and sounds the most like the person you used to vote for. Most importantly, she was a clear communicator and good at answering questions directly. This was in sharp contrast to the Tory candidate. He cut an almost Cameron-esque figure. Unfortunately that particular former PM isn’t renowned for his ability to clearly communicate or answer questions directly. In debates it became clear that this slightly evasive style no longer does anything for the public. It also didn’t help Mr Sweet that the national Conservative campaign kept insisting that all of it’s candidates supported Brexit; it simply wasn’t possible for him to be as pro-EU as the Labour candidate.
Labour also weren’t afraid to attack the utter vote-splitting pointlessness of the Lib-Dems. In 2017 the Lib-Dems had only gotten 11% of the vote in Putney, but in a particularly close election 11% can be decisive. The Labour campaign in Putney made it clear that they were the only anti-tory show in town. Why this wasn’t a bigger part of Labour’s national campaign I’ll never understand, but in Putney Labour gave the Lib-Dems both barrels, making it clear that the Lib-Dems had absolutely no chance and a vote for them was as good as a vote for the Tories.
Of course, they constantly tried to associate the new Conservative candidate with the increasingly unpopular Mr. Johnson and the dreaded
B-word. Their campaign material suggested the Tory candidate was Boris’ stooge. And Anderson always responded well to difficult questions about the Labour leader, being open about her own differences with Corbyn, but always managing to steer the conversation back to policy. She emphasised that to vote Labour was to vote for her and her platform.
Finally, there was an incredibly impressive turnout of volunteers from the Labour party and a lot of support for the campaign from the party at large. We filmed a canvassing session where the London Mayor Sadiq Khan was knocking on doors. This ‘old-fashioned’ electioneering has been overlooked in favour of the arguably more interesting stories about social media targeting, but it may well have turned the tide in Putney.
UK General elections are 650 small elections happening simultaneously. We have to be careful that, while trying to draw national conclusions, we aren’t misled. With this in mind, I present my recommendations to Her Majesty’s Opposition for the purposes of avoiding Jim’s worst case scenario:
- It is no longer tenable for there to be four or five anti-tory options. This is by far the most important. A huge part of why Labour were successful in Putney was because the anti-conservative voters got behind them. While the vote is split between Labour; the Lib-Dems; the Greens, and nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives have a huge advantage. This would mean finding a way to work with the other parties, or better yet changing the voting system to something vaguely representative; it needs to be done.
- Don’t be afraid to point out exactly what Boris Johnson is.
Labour always seems reluctant to go on the offensive (I could probably write another thousand words about why exactly that is), but Johnson is the perfect example of what is wrong with the Tory party. Their job is to make it clear that the PM isn’t just one bad apple; the entire tree is rotten.
- The party cannot afford to lose it’s (newer) activists.
This is a slightly more awkward point for Labour supporters but it is crucial. The massive influx in membership and volunteers which came in during the Corbyn era cannot be taken for granted. The ‘new leadership’ has to keep the people who joined for the left-of-centre programme engaged.
The campaign I saw in Putney was positive, well supported, and focused. Labour never seemed on the defensive and they clearly explained why all the other options were worse than them. It sounds reductionist and overly simplistic but it was refreshing to witness first-hand when the national Labour campaign was a bit of a mess.
I have no qualifications to tell the opposition what they should be doing; they seem to be operating rather confidently at the moment. But I hope that they can face up to the fact that elections are easier to win for the Conservatives. I hope, for all the people that need a more competent and compassionate government, that they can find a way to even the odds.